What is going on in Brazil

I’ve been thinking about writing a short essay about some of the things going on in Brazil right now, especially concerning politics and economics, for my English speaking friends. I guess one can get really lost in the middle of so much news, and to the best of my knowledge, some left-leaning journalists are saying quite some nonsense already. So here we go!

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a year ago. Her party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) is officially a social democrat party, close to the European social democracy tradition, i.e., socialists who want to attain power through a non violent, non revolutionary path. In the end, as it happens with so many big parties, PT has many internal tendencies and in-fighting, but I believe the party can be summarized especially in two tendencies.

On one hand you have cultural Marxists, in the Frankfurt School but even more in the Antonio Gramsci tradition. Many people in PT and other Brazilian socialist parties understood long ago that they had to win a cultural war before they won the political war. And so, these factions are much more interested in feminism, gay rights, and minority rights in general than in anything else. To the best of my knowledge, this is a strategy that backfires somewhat: cultural Leftism is a self defeating philosophy, and so, cultural Marxists are more and more into a witch hunt that damages even themselves. They make a lot of noise, to be sure, but they can’t run a country.

On the other hand, many Brazilian socialists are almost entirely pragmatic. It seems that they forgot about Marxism long ago, and are somehow even convinced of the Washington Consensus. They know basic economics, such as money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s no such thing as free lunch. But they also don’t want to lose face, and most importantly, don’t want to lose position. So, they surely won’t take measures that really shrink the size of the state to a healthy degree.

Dilma’s supporters still say she was the victim of a coup. Of course, she wasn’t. She was impeached with overwhelming evidence of her wrongdoings according to Brazilian law. Other than that, it is hard to believe in a coup where all branches of government agree and the military are not involved in any way. Eventually her supporters sophisticated the argument by saying she was the victim of a “parliamentary coup.” It is nonsense, but if we take it with a grain of salt we can be reminded of something important in Brazilian politics – or politics in general. Dilma was not impeached because of her wrongdoings. Many politicians in Brazil have done similar or worse things than her. She was impeached because she lost support, mostly in the legislative branch. For the wrong reasons (opposition to Dilma), the representatives did the right thing.

One of the problems that Brazil faces today is that the same congress that impeached Dilma for the wrong reasons expects from her successor, Michel Temer, the political favors they used to get from Dilma’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. But these favors are not cheap. Other than that, even if he is a crook, Temer seems to realize that Brazil can’t suffer any more socialism. In the end Brazil is facing some (sort of) free market reforms, but without really shaking the basis of a state too big to function properly.


Nazism: left or right?

One of the greatest controversies on the Brazilian internet these last few days was to define Nazism as either left-wing or right-wing. I even wrote something about it in Portuguese, and although I really tried my best not to be controversial, I was amazed by how divisive the issue seems to be. So here is my view on this issue, now in English.

Is Nazism a left or right wing political movement? The first thing I believe we need to consider to answer this question is what is right and left? The answer (surprisingly simple in my view) is that right and left are words. Words are signs we use to describe things, but as (I guess) most linguists will say, words don’t have any objective connection to the things they describe. For example, there’s no special connection between the word “cat” and that fluffy animal that drinks milk and chases rats. It is just a convention that in the English language we call that animal “cat,” and not “alligator” or “hot dog.”

However, when we say that there is no objective connection between words and stuff, that doesn’t mean that words are simply random. Words only work in a linguistic context, so there is no use calling a cat anything else if you want to communicate properly. The English language (as any other language, except for Esperanto) was not invented by any specific person. Languages are actually a spontaneous order, something that economists in the Austrian School really enjoy talking about. So, if you want to communicate well, you have to join the party (or the conversation).

With all that said, we need to admit that the word most often used to describe Nazism politically is right-wing. Actually, far-right. The point in discussion (that so many people in Brazil just don’t seem to get) is if this description makes any sense. You see, other groups classified as right-wing are conservatives and liberals (classical liberals, to be more precise). So the question is: why are conservatives, liberals and Nazis all classified as right-wing? What do all these groups have in common? Going back to the example of the cat, there is a reason why you can call both a lion and a tiger a cat (or a feline): they both share several characteristics. It may be just at the eye of the beholder (although evolutionary biologists will say something different), but a lion has much more to do with a tiger than with a frog. So it seems fair to include lions and tigers in a small group where frogs don’t belong. So, the question is: is it fair to include conservatives, classical liberals and Nazis in the same group? Why?

I know there are reasons why all these groups are generally classified together. I know that left and right are terms that go back to the French Revolution. I know how these terms are generally used. All I’m saying (with Friedrich Hayek, David Nolan, and many others) is that we should reconsider the way we typically classify political groups.

Dinosaurs were classified as reptiles. And then people realized they were closer to birds. I guess it was a shock when someone first said that a Velociraptor has more to do with a chicken than with a Komodo dragon, but it seems to me (as an outsider of paleontology) that this is common wisdom now. Similarly, maybe we should have the courage to reconsider the way we classify Nazis. Leftists, of course, won’t like this. But neither do conservatives like being called fascists. Are leftists tasting their bitter medicine? Maybe. But I believe they should give us a good explanation why Nazis should be considered right-wing. I haven’t heard any.

Is Socialism Really Revolutionary?

A central feature of Karl Marx’s thought is its teleological character: the world walks inexorably towards communism. It is not a question of choices. It is not a question of individual decisions. Communism is simply the direction in which the world walks. Capitalism will collapse not because of some external force, but because of its own internal contradictions (centrally the exploitation of the workers).

I don’t know exactly what History classes are like in other countries, but in basically all my academic trajectory I was bombarded with some version of Marxism. Particularly as far as my country was concerned, the question was not whether a socialist revolution would happen, but why it was taking so long! Looking at events in the past, the reading was as follows: the bourgeoisie overthrew the Old Regime in the French Revolution. At that time the bourgeoisie were revolutionaries (and therefore left-wing). However, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government, the bourgeois became advocates of the new order (and therefore, reactionary, or right-wing). Socialists have become the new revolutionaries, the new left, the new radicals.

This way of seeing history has a Hegelian background: there are no absolutes. History moves through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. History’s god is learning to be a god. I’ve written earlier here about how this kind of relativistic view does not stand on its own terms. Now I would like to say that this way of looking at history can be intellectually dishonest.

According to the historical view I have learned, there is no absolute of what is left or right. One political group is always to the left or to the right of another, depending on how much this group is revolutionary or reactionary. Thus, the bourgeois were revolutionaries at one time, but today they are no longer. But what happens when the Socialists come to power? Do not they themselves become reactionary, defenders of the status quo? According to everything they taught me, no. The revolution is permanent. My assessment is that at this point they are partly right: the revolution must be permanent.

Socialists can not take the risk of becoming exactly what they fought at the first place. In practice, however, this is not the case: the Socialists occupy the posts of the state and begin to defend their position and these positions more than anything else. That’s what I see in my country today. In practice, it is impossible to be revolutionary all the time, just as it is impossible to be relativistic in a consistent way. I have not yet met a person who, looking at the red light, said “but to me it’s green and all these other cars are just a narrative of patriarchal society.”

Politics is unfortunately, for the most part, simply a search for power. Even the most idealistic groups need the power to put their agendas into practice. And experience shows that once installed in power, many idealistic groups become pragmatic.

Socialism is not revolutionary. It is only a reaction against the real revolution that is capitalism defended by classical liberalism. Classical liberalism says: men are all equal, private property is inviolable, exchanges can only occur voluntarily and no one can be forced to work against their will. Marxism responds: men are not all the same (they are divided into classes), private property is relative (if it is in the interest of the collective I can take what was once yours) and you will work for our cause, whether or not you want to. In short, Marxism is a return to the Old Regime.

The Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience II

Some months ago I posted a text on the connection of the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. About it, fellow Notewriter Mark Koyama tweeted:

“Disagree or at least the effect of the Reformation on freedom of conscience was indirect. Just read Luther or Calvin on religious freedom!”

I’m not sure what he means. What should I read that Luther or Calvin wrote? Please, be more specific. I read a lot of Calvin and a little of Luther, but I maintain my point: there is a strong connection between the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. I may, however, agree that this connection is indirect.

When Max Weber connected the protestant ethics to the “spirit” of capitalism, he was very careful to say the following: John Calvin and Martin Luther couldn’t care less about economics. The salvation of the soul, and only that, was their concern. Nevertheless, the ideas they preached set in motion a process that resulted in the development of modern capitalism. My observation about the connection between the Protestant Reformation and Freedom of Conscience is similar to that: maybe we will not be able to find in Luther or Calvin an advocacy of what we understand today as freedom of conscience. But it is my firm understanding that we will find in them the seeds for it. Actually, it’s more than that: we would find the seeds for it in Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he already established the separation of church and state. The Apostle Peter did the same when he said that “it is more important to obey God than men”, and so did the Apostle Paul when he established limits to the power of secular authorities in his epistle to the Romans. We could go even further and find seed to it in the prophet Samuel, when he warned the people of Israel of the potential tyranny of kings. All this was somehow lost when, from Constantine to Theodosius I, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and also when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. The wall between church and state was severally breached.

So, again, I never actually said that John Calvin or Martin Luther were, to our modern standards, champions of religious freedom. That’s a statement I never made. Both were opposites of the Anabaptist and wrote extensively against them. Granted, some Anabaptists were very much the 16th century version of ISIS (important! I’m in no way putting an equal sign between these two groups! Please, don’t misread what I write), and I’m actually really happy those two opposed them. But other Anabaptists were peaceful (such as the Mennonites) and suffered along. We can also mention the bitter opposition Luther had to Jews at one point in his life. But regardless. What I said is that the religious freedom we enjoy in our world today is to a great degree a product of the Protestant Reformation. As much else in history, this is not a clear cut transformation, but a gradual one.

What I proposed was technically a counterfactual: no Protestant Reformation, no freedom of conscience as we know today. Of course, history has one big problem with counterfactuals: we can never rewind the tape of history and then play it again changing just one detail. But I believe that, as much as we can compare History to a more empirical discipline, we can say that without the Protestant Reformation we would not know freedom of conscience as we know today. As I mentioned in my first post, this was not a clear cut passage in history. When we talk about causality in history, very few things are. What I meant is that the Protestant Reformation was to a major degree the breaking point that lead to our modern understanding of freedom of conscience.

But what was the Protestant Reformation, anyway? The Protestant Reformation was mainly a religious movement in Western Europe that lead to the break of the unity of Western Christianity. It was not a perfectly cohesive movement. When we talk about “Protestants”, the group that best fits this description are some Lutheran princes that “protested” against the anti-Lutheran policies in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1520s. But very soon the name protestant began to be used to describe any non-catholic group that appeared in Western Europe in the 16th century. From that we have four main protestant groups: Lutherans (called simply evangelicals in Germany and other areas in Europe), Reformed (or Calvinists, after the major influence of John Calvin over this sect), Anabaptists and Anglicans (who sometime don’t even like to be called protestants).

Martin Luther and John Calvin may have been the great stars of the reformation, but they were most certainly not alone. Just to mention a few, we can remember Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer William Farel, Thomas Cranmer and John Knox as great leaders of the reformation. These men were united in their opposition to the Pope in Rome, but had many disagreements among them. Certainly they knew what united them and where they disagreed. But they were not wish-wash about what they believed. But still we can notice the desire to tolerate differences and unite on essentials. Philip Melanchthon, a great friend to Martin Luther and also a great early Lutheran theologian would be an excellent example of this attitude. Zacharius Ursinus, the main author of the Heidelberg Catechism would fit just well.

Extremely early on in the history of the Reformation we have Martin Luther on the Diet of Worms stating that “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Yeah, some people may contest that he never uttered these words, and that the whole episode is but a myth. Regardless, it came to encompass the spirit of the Reformation as few other moments.

Some may say that I have a very stretchy definition of the Reformation, but in general, when I think about it, I define it chronologically as a period that goes from Luther to the Westminster Standards, so, about a century and a half of religious transformations in Europe. In that way, Luther was just the start of this religious movement. Calvin was already a second generation reformer. Many theologians would follow in the next century or so. Each one would build on the knowledge of the previous generation, coming, among other things, closer to our modern understanding of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. That’s why we may be unable to find much about religious freedom in Luther or Calvin (as Mark seems to claim in his tweet), but we already find a whole chapter on it in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Between Luther and the Westminster Assembly we had many notable events. For instance, the Augsburg Peace of 1555, that already granted some level of religious freedom to Catholics and Lutherans in Germany. It was not a perfect agreement, so much so that it couldn’t avoid the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), ended by the Peace of Westphalia. This peace agreement took religious liberty to a new level. Very importantly, as Daniel Philpott already observed: no Protestant Reformation, no Thirty Years War, no Peace of Westphalia, no International Relations as we know today. I could add no secular states and no religious freedom and freedom of conscience as we know today. We also had the English Reformation, with the Puritan Reformation in between. From England to the other side of the Atlantic the story was even more interesting, with puritans and nonconformist seeking for a place where they could exercise their religion freely.

I’d like to remember also that one of the mottos of the Reformation was “Ecclesia semper reformanda est,” the church must always be reformed. There is a classical period of the Reformation, stretching from the 16th to the 17th century, or from Luther’s 95 Theses to the Westminster Standards. But the Reformed (or more broadly, protestant) churches didn’t stop there. We still have important developments in protestant theology in the following centuries, and even today. Maybe John Calvin and Martin Luther are not the best way to look for a broader version of freedom of conscience. But the religious movement they helped to start, building on their foundations, helped more than anything I can think of to establish what we know today as freedom of conscience. In my last post I mentioned John Wesley. But I could just as well mention William Penn, Roger Williams and many others. William Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania, to where many people (Catholics included) fled in search of freedom of conscience. Roger Williams, a Baptist, was the original source for the concept of “wall of separation” between church and state, that years later, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson would quote in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.

Anyway: as I mentioned several times already, very few changes in history are clear cut. It is also pretty trick to identify causality in history. But I believe that, as far as we can go with that, the Protestant Reformation was a major changing point to what we have today as freedom of conscience, a freedom as basic as one can get in a classic liberal society.

More simple economic truths I wish more people understood

There are only four ways to spend money:

  1. You spend your money with yourself.
  2. You spend your money with others.
  3. You spend other’s money with yourself.
  4. You spend other’s money with others.

Just think about it for one second and you will agree: these are the only possible ways to spend money.

The best way to spend money is to spend your money with yourself. The worst is when you spend other’s money with others.

When you spend your money with yourself, you know how much money you have and what your needs are.

When you spend your money with others, you know how much money you have but you don’t know as well what other’s needs are.

When you spend other’s money with yourself you know your needs but you don’t know how much money you can actually spend. In a situation like this, some people will shy away from spending much money (when they actually could) and will end up not totally satisfied. Other people will have no problem like that and will spend as crazy, not noticing that they are spending too much. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are: the fact is that this is not a good way to spend money.

When you spend other’s money with others you have the worst case scenario: you don’t know other’s needs as well as they know and you also don’t have a clear grasp of how much money you can actually spend.

In a true liberal capitalist society, the majority of the money is spent by individuals on their own needs. The more a society drifts away from this ideal, the more people spend money that is not actually theirs on other people. The more money is misused.

The government basically spend money is not theirs on other people. That’s why government spending is usually bad. Even the most well-meaning government official, more in line with your personal beliefs, will probably not spend your money as well as you could yourself.

Simple economics I wish more people understood

Economics comes from the Greek “οίκος,” meaning “household” and “νęμoμαι,” meaning “manage.” Therefore, in its more basic sense, economy means literally “rule of the house.” It applies to the way one manages the resources one has in their house.

Everyone has access to limited resources. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, or middle class. Even the richest person on Earth has limited resources. Our day has only 24 hours. We only have one body. This body starts to decay very early in our lives. Even with modern medicine, we don’t get to live much more than 100 years.

The key of economics is how well we manage our limited resources. We need to make the best with the little we are given.

For most of human history, we were very poor. We had access to very limited resources, and we were not particularly good at managing them. We became much better in managing resources in the last few centuries. Today we can do much more with much less.

Value is a subjective thing. One thing has value when you think this thing has value. You may value something that I don’t.

We use money to exchange value. Money in and of itself can have no value at all. It doesn’t matter. The key of money is its ability to transmit information: I value this and I don’t value that.

Of course, many things can’t be valued in money. At least for most people. But it doesn’t change the fact that money is a very intelligent way to attribute value to things.

The economy cannot be managed centrally by a government agency. We have access to limited resources. Only we, individually, can judge which resources are more necessary for us in a given moment. Our needs can change suddenly, without notice. You can be saving money for years to buy a house, only to discover you will have to spend this money on a medical treatment. It’s sad. It’s even tragic. But it is true. If the economy is managed centrally, you have to transmit information to this central authority that your plans have changed. But if we have a great number of people changing plans every day, then this central authority will inevitably be loaded. The best judge of how to manage your resources is yourself.

We can become really rich as a society if we attribute responsibility for each person on how we manage our resources. If each one of us manages their resources to the best of their knowledge and abilities, we will have the best resource management possible. We will make the best of the limited resources we have.

Economics has a lot to do with ecology. They share the Greek “οίκος” which, again, means “household.” This planet is our house. The best way to take care of our house is to distribute individual responsibility over individual management of individual pieces of this Earth. No one can possess the whole Earth. But we can take care of tiny pieces we are given responsibility over.

James Cooley Fletcher

At the beginning of the 19th century there was almost no vestige of Protestantism in Brazil. From the 16th century the country was colonized basically only by Portuguese, who resisted the advance of Protestantism during the same period. Huguenots and Dutch Reformers tried to colonize parts of Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries, but with little or no lasting effects. Only after the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in 1808 did this picture begin to change.

First came the English Anglicans. England rendered a great help to Portugal in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, and thus the subjects of the English crown gained religious freedom on Brazilian soil. This freedom soon extended to German Lutheran immigrants who settled mainly in the south of the country from the 1820s. However, it was only with the American missionary work, from the 1840s and 1850s, that Protestantism really began to settle in Brazil.

James Cooley Fletcher was one of the people who contributed most to the establishment of Protestantism in Brazil. Quoted frequently by historians, he is, however, little understood by most of them and little known by the general public. Born April 15, 1823 in Indianapolis, Indiana, he studied at the Princeton, Paris, and Geneva Seminary between 1847 and 1850 and first came to Brazil in 1852. In 1857 he published the first edition of The Brazil and the Brazilians, a book which for many decades would be the main reference regarding Brazil in the English language.

Fletcher first came to Brazil as chaplain of the American Seamen’s Friend Society and a missionary of the American and Foreign Christian Union. However, shortly after his arrival in the country, he made it his mission to bring Protestantism to the Brazilians. His performance, however, would be indirect: instead of preaching himself to the Brazilians, Fletcher chose to prepare the ground for other missionaries. For this he became friends with several members of the Brazilian elite, including Emperor Dom Pedro II. Through these friendships, he managed to influence legislation favorable to the acceptance of Protestantism in Brazil.

Although Fletcher anticipated and aided missionaries who would work directly with the conversion of Brazilians to Protestantism, his relationship with these same missionaries was not always peaceful. Some of the missionaries who succeeded Fletcher were suspicious of him because of his contacts with Brazilian politicians. It is true, Fletcher had an agenda not always identical with that of other missionaries: while others wished to focus only on the conversion of Brazilians, he understood that Protestantism and liberalism were closely linked, and that the implementation of the first in Brazil would lead to the progress propelled by the second. For this very reason, Fletcher had no problem engaging in activities that at first glance would seem oblivious to purely evangelistic work. He promoted, for example, the immigration of Americans to Brazil, the establishment of ship lines linking the two countries, the end of slavery in Brazil and commercial freedom.

James Cooley Fletcher is generally little remembered by Brazilian Protestants, although he has contributed decisively to the end of the Roman Catholic monopoly in the country. He is also little remembered by historians, but this should not be so. Fletcher was one of the people who contributed most to the strengthening of religious freedom in Brazil, and also to a combination of religious, political, and economic beliefs. It was precisely because of his religious beliefs that he believed in the political and economic strength of liberalism to transform any country, including Brazil.